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Friday, 27 July 2012

A glance back...........

John Houghton has written an excellent blog this week for New Start magazine called 'Exposing the Lie'

In the blog John challenges the notion that people living in the most economically disadvantaged communities do not care about the plans and decisions that affect their lives. 

John's blog took me back to the work I did with ecumenical colleagues in the churches in Bradford in 1994. 

Called 'Powerful Whispers', it involved the Bradford Metropolitan District's top decision-makers listening to local people speak in four two hour sessions. Each session was held in one of four of the District's most disadvantaged communities. The decision-makers were asked to listen in silence, without response, as people talked about their lives and communities. This was to enable them to really listen without being distracted by thoughts of how they ought to respond.

Local people, who had complete control over the content and method of delivery, were answering the following questions: 
What is good about where you live? 
What are you already doing to make a difference? 
What are your hopes and fears for the future?

From the four Hearings a colleague and I drew out the key issues. For the first time the issue of consultation and decision-making arose. I quote it in full because, from John's blog, clearly it is still relevant.

This is what my co-author and I wrote in the final report in 1995:

Consultation and Decision-Making
'When resources are scarce, and the problems which need addressing are many, the quality of decision-making becomes crucial. Decisions have to be clear, and the reasoning behind them absolutely transparent, if people are going to accept decisions as being fair.

As the four steering groups prepared for the Hearings, it became obvious that people in areas which had not received regeneration mony from schemes such as City Challenge or the Single Regeneration Budget were feeling disappointed and a little bitter.

Ironically feelings were also running very high on Holmewood, which has had very substantial funding from City Challenge. Holmewood demonstrates that spending money is not in itself the key; great attention needs to be given to the way it is spent. Time and again we were given examples of what local people thought was money being inappropriately spent on projects which had not originated within the community.

They pointed out that thousands of pounds had been spent on hiring 'consultants' to canvass local opinions. Yet those consultation exercises were felt to be cosmetic. The view was that where local opinion did not coincide with that of those running City Challenge, then people felt that their ideas were ignored. This had led to cynicism about being consulted. On the other hand there are people involved with the running of City Challenge who feel that serious efforts have been made to involve local people at every stage. This is causing tension and there is the possibility that some of the strong community roots put down over the years are being undermined.

Consulting people is never a simple process. People are often reluctant to express opinions or lack the confidence to contribute ideas. They often feel that they do not have the knowledge to participate. The usual methods of questionnaire and public meeting are limited to drawing from people the kinds of issues which concern them and their families. People who are struggling to survive do not necessarily complain the loudest! There needs to be clear recognition that real consultation is expensive in terms of time, as well as money, in those communities which have the most problems but that this expenditure can represent a sound investment.

If Bradford is going to be able to cope with scarce resources and growing needs, then creative ways have to be found of including citizens in decision-making. People need to be helped to think about their own locality but also to develop a wider picture of concern and awareness.

At the de-brief meeting which we organised for those who had spoken at the four Hearings, people became very excited when they shared with one another the issues that they had raised at the indiviidual Hearings. When they realised that they had such a common agenda, there was a sense that they wanted to explore further what this might mean, not only for their particular area, but for the city as a whole. They felt that there was strength to be gained by working together and understanding each other.'

The next twelve years of my working life in the District was spent turning this desire into a reality.

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